Welcome to Wired Ivy – Summer Shorts!
Kieran here… with with some suggestions for how to serve adult learners in the virtual classroom.
By now, practically everyone who has a connection to academia has heard that the traditional audience for higher education is headed for a demographic cliff. In response, colleges and universities are exploring ways to attract an older audience of degree completers and life-long learners to bridge the gap. But who counts as an adult learner, and how do we retain them once we have their attention?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), non-traditional age students are “not between the ages of 18 and 22 years of age.” Not the clearest way to state that, I know, but I didn’t write it, I’m just reporting. The NCES fleshes out that definition by adding that adult learners have established responsibilities, such as jobs and/or families, and they don’t live on campus.
To put an even finer point on it, many adult learners don’t live anywhere near campus, and in the case of online students, they may not live in the same state, region, continent, or country as their educational institution. School isn’t the central hub of a non-traditional student’s life; rather, school is one of many spokes on a very full wheel.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but apparently it sometimes does, that adult learners are less likely to be available than traditional students to attend classes during regular Monday through Friday, 8a to 4p academic business hours. On the other hand, evenings and weekends may present childcare challenges.
And let’s not forget that these barriers to higher education don’t magically appear when someone turns 23. Plenty of traditional age 18-22 year olds are also juggling school, work, family, and other personal responsibilities.
All of these factors contribute to the popularity of online education among diverse non-traditional students.
But there’s more to serving these learners than marketing campaigns that include images of young adults in business attire sitting in an office setting. To attract and retain this audience of students requires a willingness to stop expecting that, once admitted and formally welcomed, they will adjust to meet the campus status quo. True inclusiveness means designing and delivering courses, programs, and services that fit into their lives, instead of expecting them to rearrange their lives and schedules to fit the rhythms of a campus they may never visit.
Especially when we’re talking about online courses and programs, which is, after all, the focus of this podcast, it’s important to remember that if we don’t make it feasible for adult learners to succeed they’ll find another institution that will. The switch to a better fit is as easy as entering some keywords into a search engine, and then moving their cursor.
But how do we tailor educational offerings so they are not one-size-fits-all?
Since this is a Summer Shorts episode, I’m not going to give you an exhaustive treatise, but I will offer a couple ideas to get the ball rolling.
School isn’t the central hub of a non-traditional student’s life; rather, school is one of many spokes on a very full wheel. #HigherEd #VirtualClassroom #AdultLearnersTweet
A. ALL TOGETHER NOW… OR MAYBE NOT
First and foremost, serving adult learners in online classes requires attention to time zones and timing.
If your course roster commonly features students from across your home continent, and possibly beyond, then asynchronous delivery is really the only viable delivery mode… unless your goal is to shrink the number of students who enroll in your classes.
On the other hand, some of you may teach for a program that serves a primarily or entirely local audience… and in this context local could mean anything from a large metropolitan area to an entire geographic region.
But just because everyone is in the same time zone doesn’t mean that everyone on your roster is available to meet at the same time. One student’s daily itinerary may revolve around daycare drop-off and pick-up. Another student may be managing an aging parent’s needs. A third student may work the night shift. Someone else has to travel extensively for their job.
Asynchronous delivery allows each of these individuals to decide when class takes place for them, so long as they can do quality work and meet assignment deadlines. Adults know how to adjust their schedules depending on the demands of the day, so once they realize that having some agency over when to listen to a lecture, or participate in a discussion, or work on an assignment only feels odd because it’s school, they’ll apply the same skills they already use to manage work and personal responsibilities, and do just fine. I see incoming students quickly and seamlessly adapt, without fail, to this more autonomous approach to schooling every semester.
And here’s an asynchronous delivery bonus… as the instructor, you’ll no longer have to arrange your day around a live, streaming Zoom call that you have to record anyway, as standard best practice, in case someone loses their internet connection halfway through class.
Win-win-win…am I right?
Just because all your students are in the same time zone doesn’t mean everyone is available to meet at the same time. #HigherEd #VirtualClassroom #AdultLearnersTweet
B. WALK YOUR TALK
Let’s be clear, asynchronous is not the same as self-paced. Asynchronous courses are still organized by weeks or modules, there are still deadlines, and there is still a high level of external accountability that helps students stay on track. It’s just that there’s more flexibility built into when students engage with the content and, in the case of group assignments, with each other.
That said, you may have to adjust the way you think about how much time it takes to complete an assignment, and set deadlines accordingly. For example, if your class is taught asynchronously, you can’t give students a graded assignment on Monday, and set the deadline for Wednesday, two days later. Why? Because for all you know, some of the students in the class weren’t planning to start work on your course until Thursday evening, or over the weekend… which is completely reasonable, assuming the week or module begins on a Monday.
The guidance I give faculty in the Online Master of Natural Resources program at Virginia Tech is 7 to 10 days, minimum, spanning two weekends if possible, to complete any solo graded assignment. I recommend adding at least 3 to 4 more days for group assignments, because students will need time to get organized and accommodate one another’s schedules.
Asynchronous discussions need to be handled a bit differently, because you’ll want students to be engaged over the entire time the chatroom is open and active, rather than simply posting the minimum number of comments and responses 5 minutes before the final deadline. Building in micro-deadlines, complete with points, rather than a single end-point deadline, will help to foster an actual conversation, and reduce the frustration levels of those students who contribute early and then fret about their grade because there aren’t any other postings for them to comment on.
Having, say, 5 micro-deadlines spread over a 10-day period should be reasonable and feasible for adult learners in an asynchronous online course because: 1) it’s possible to participate in a discussion without needing a large block of time for each post; and 2) the total number of points faculty assign to each discussion tends to be lower than for other types of graded assignments, so the stress levels for students are lower as well.
Asynchronous is not self-paced. Asynch courses are still organized by weeks or modules, with deadlines and accountability. There’s simply more flexibility around when students engage with the content. #HigherEd #VirtualClassroom #AdultLearnersTweet
C. REASONABLE ACCOMMODATIONS
Another consideration when working with adult learners is the need to be less rigid about deadlines. This is a tricky one, as I’ll illustrate with this story from my early days teaching online at VT.
I knew when I was first hired as a postdoc to develop and teach online courses, that this program was designed to serve adult learners. I didn’t have any hesitation about that because I had been an adult learner myself, from my time as an undergrad returning to complete a degree, to working on a research-focused MS, and then a PhD as an unofficial distance and online student.
The MNR program had a standard protocol by which we stated in our syllabi that reasonable accommodations would be made for students who had to be away for some limited period of time due to work demands, including travel. In our case, this included fire duty, which can involve some uncertainty around the number of days away, because at the time we had quite a few US Forest Service personnel enrolled in the program.
So, with all of that in mind, I was absolutely floored when a student contacted me midway through the semester to say she was going to be away for two weeks on a family vacation, and could I please give her early access to the next two modules, as well as an extension on a couple of deadlines. Having rearranged my life around the academic calendar from the first days of kindergarten until I was hooded, the idea that a student would intentionally book a vacation during the semester, other than for Fall or Spring Break, was incomprehensible to me!
But, one of the great benefits of the maturation process, in my experience, is that I’ve learned that when I have a strong reaction to a comment or query from someone, it’s helpful to allow myself some time for the adrenaline to dissipate before I put fingers to keyboard. And that’s exactly what I did in this case. I got up from my desk, forcefully enough to startle my dog who was snoozing nearby, and the two of us took an impromptu and initially brisk walk around the neighborhood.
[Deep breath…] While on that walk, several things occurred to me. First, I remembered that in many workplaces, there are limitations on when someone can use annual leave, and those unembargoed weeks are unlikely to take the academic calendar into consideration. Second, I considered the fact that university calendars aren’t always in-sync with K through 12 calendars, and given the timing that might be a consideration in this case.
Lastly, I realized that if I tell my students I’ll make accommodations because of a job-related conflict, but not in the case of a vacation, all I’m really doing is encouraging my students to lie to me, since I have no way of verifying the reason for their request, and I’m not about to ask students to provide a note from their supervisor.
So, I came to the conclusion that since I try to create a learning community of colleagues, in class and in the program, I would just have to trust my students unless there’s evidence to suggest that an individual is not trustworthy. These are adults, they are for the most part paying out of pocket for their education or using student loans, they are passionate about this discipline and their careers, so I need to cut them some slack, without compromising academic rigor.
And, since there is potential for students to abuse this generous policy of accommodations, I came up with a response to any request for special treatment. I explain that I’m willing to do whatever I can to help BUT I also have to balance the needs of an individual student with what’s fair to everyone else in class. With that equation as my guide, I’ve found it much easier to have pliant deadlines that are still fair to the group as a whole.
I realized if I tell my students I’ll make accommodations for job-related conflicts but not for vacations, all I’m really doing is encouraging them to lie to me. #OnlineLearning #HigherEd #VirtualClassroomTweet
Now it’s time for a Wired Ivy listener challenge… a thought experiment that can provide tangible benefits in your own virtual classroom.
Imagine you need or want to go back to school. What changes would you need to make to your work and personal life schedules so attending class as an adult learner is feasible?
What kinds of changes to a standard, synchronous, in-person class would you want or need the instructor to make so you could be fully engaged as a learner… without dropping the ball on any of your other responsibilities?
What thoughts come to mind, OR what adaptations have you already implemented in your online classes to acknowledge the needs of adult and other non-traditional students?
Let’s hear what you have to say!
Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions! You can leave a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy, or you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (kieran is spelled k-i-e-r-a-n) or email@example.com (dan is spelled d-a-n).
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As always, send us your questions, comments, and suggestions. You can leave a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy, or help Wired Ivy grow by subscribing, rating, and reviewing us on your favorite podcast apps, and by sharing this Summer Shorts episode with your friends and colleagues.
Wired Ivy co-host Kieran Lindsey is a former online graduate student, occasional online educator, and current Program Director for Virginia Tech’s Online Master of Natural Resources. The Online MNR has has evolved from in-person instruction to online, and under her guidance has grown to be the university’s 2nd largest virtually delivered graduate degree. Kieran serves as a special consultant to VT’s Graduate School Dean on virtual programming for non-traditional student audiences, and has provided ad hoc advising on the development and delivery of online programming to colleagues at various institutions. Kieran is also an urban wildlife biologist (Texas A&M – BS, MS, PhD), writer, blogger, regional Emmy Award recipient (documentary feature), and now a podcaster, too, as well as personal assistant to a ferociously cute wire fox terrier named Dashiell Riprock (aka Dash).